Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Theology of Right

In the comments of my last post, Bruce of Fallen From Grace, a former evangelical Christian pastor, wrote "For me, the most important thing was being right. In my mind I believed that by striving to be right I was closer to God."

Bruce's remark stuck with me today, presumably because it elicited vivid memories from my past. Why is the need for "rightness" so common in Christianity, especially the more conservative denominations? What has the requirement of being right done to Christianity as a whole? Does it, as Bruce once believed, bring one closer to God?

I believe the primary motivation behind the need to be right in much of Christianity can be traced back to the notion of moral superiority I discussed in my last post. I said that conservative Christians "vigorously insist that the only way to procure a genuine relationship with God and enter into heaven is through their religious system". This conviction naturally leads to a certainty of moral superiority. However, moral superiority is not solely an abstract idea. Adherents believe it is manifested in the individual doctrines advocated by conservative Christianity. This is where the demand to be right originates. For a particular doctrine to be morally superior to other doctrines explaining similar questions, it must be considered "right". If it was not, competing doctrines could  assert "rightness" and then moral superiority would be in question. So, the more engrossed a denomination is with moral superiority, the greater the necessity for them to regard their beliefs as "right". In my experience, this correlation is most obviously demonstrated by fundamentalist Christianity.

Personally, I think this obsession with being right has absolutely decimated Christianity. There are currently thousands of separate Christian denominations. A majority of these denominations did not emerge from thin air, but instead were frequently created by schisms of  previously established denominations. The dominant rationale for these schisms is a dispute in some point of theology. Some of these disputes are more serious than others: Was Jesus fully man, fully God, or both? Is salvation principally achieved by faith or works? Other disputes are comparatively minor: Is the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday? Did Jesus drink wine or grape juice at the Last Supper?

My personal favorite though, is: Will the Rapture of true believers occur before, during, or after the Tribulation? In the past decade or so, most fundamentalist believers have become thoroughly convinced that we are in the midst of the end-of-days. I found the intensity of the arguments over the timing of the Rapture to be beyond absurd. I observed not just churches, but actual families, being torn apart over such an insignificant issue.

Honestly, I find it rather depressing. Early Christianity had such awesome potential to transform the world. Yet, when I review history, I am left considerably disappointed. It seems as if much of this potential was squandered on superficial disagreements.

So, does striving to be right above all else bring one closer to God? While I cannot speak for everybody, I can speak for myself, and for me, the answer is no. Actually, quite the opposite. Growing up, I questioned  many of the supposedly "right" beliefs. I realized they were either logically or morally inconsistent. Unfortunately, this brought on massive amounts of guilt and fear. As a child, I was taught those doctrines were the laws of God, and to question them put my immortal soul in danger. If you did not have perfectly right beliefs, God would torture you in hell for all eternity. Far from being close to God, I was terrified of Him.

Even today, I can still fall into the trap of "being right". Although universalism has brought me close to God in a way fundamentalism never could, sometimes I become anxious. What if I have gotten some of the details wrong? What if I have made a mistake? What about the questions I don't yet have answers too? When this occurs, I must to remember to step back and observe the bigger picture. Universalism has taught me that it is love that truly matters; God's love for each of us and our love for each other. The details are just that: details. I am not saying details are completely meaningless, but we cannot allow the details to take over our lives. If we do, our priority becomes being right, when it should be love.


  1. I believe the problem is in considering religious faith as a truth claim. Of course if one assumes the Bible (or whatever Holy book) is a divine revelation, it naturally follows that strict adherence to its teaching is literally holding to the truth. When Jude's epistle exhorts Christians to "earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints," it wasn't an appeal to be right for the sake of being right. It was an appeal to cling to that truth which God has revealed through his prophets and apostles, truth which would lead to eternal life.

    Once we depart from that and accept the right of everyone to form their own opinions and to agree to disagree with their fellow travelers, we also depart from the idea that there is something known as THE TRUTH. And whatever errors of judgment we make only affects us in this life, and not in some purported afterlife.

    I do believe there are good ideas and bad ideas. But I make that judgment based upon the results (here on earth) of holding and following those ideas. In my opinion, it is worthwhile to expose bad ideas and promote good ones. I'm only interested in being "right" only so far as I am being positive and doing good. That is my most important thing.

  2. It sometimes makes me wonder that if the people God revealed himself to can't get it correct and spend all their time trying to be right to the exclusion of others, maybe God didn't do what we have been told that he did. Just another of my many questions.